The One Question Every Successful Leader Must Answer (Even Before It Is Asked)

j0441498The supervisor is frustrated – in his mind, he has done everything right to manage his team to a successful outcome.  He carefully explained the task at hand and its deadline for completion, how it was supposed to get done (and by whom), and outlined the expected results.

He has monitored the resulting team activity and provided useful feedback.

And yet, the outcome was less than what he expected.   What went wrong?

It’s one of those situations that can drive leaders crazy. I know, because it’s happened to me.

There’s a missing element here, and it’s about a question that needs to be answered – even before anybody asks.

Look again at my example above. The supervisor had answered four questions for his team – “What?”, “When?“, “How?”, and “Who?”

What was missing was the answer to “Why?”

Put another way, it’s placing the desired result in the proper context for each team member, as well as explaining the importance of each person’s role in achieving that result.

In my experience I have found that it is well worth your time to sit down with your team and get those “Why” answers on the table, and make sure they are understood.   You cannot assume that they know these answers – even if they don’t ask the questions.

Granted, this can be a time consuming exercise, especially when there are tight deadlines.   There’s typically a strong temptation to just step on the accelerator and get the bus moving.  But successful leaders must resist that temptation.

It’s really a matter of giving meaning to the work that each person does, which leads to happier, more motivated, and more productive teammates.

Here’s a specific example.   A few years ago my company started tracking a customer service metric, based on specific customer feedback.  When we first started we more or less just “put it out there”, explaining the mechanics of the metric, the way it was compiled and scored,  and setting a company goal.

The metric performed reasonably well, but hit a plateau short of the goal.  We eventually determined that the way to push it past this barrier was to spend a lot more time with our customer facing staff explaining the “whys”; why this measurement was important to the success of the company, and why their specific actions could make a difference in moving the number higher.   We had these sessions multiple times over the course of a year.

Since that time, and with these “why” answers more clearly understood, our scores eventually exceeded our goal, and they continue to rise to greater heights to this day.  And our employee satisfaction scores have also gone up.

So remember, don’t forget the “why” – and keep your sanity.


  1. says

    Nice point Terry

    We should not be afraid to ask the why question when trying to achieve success. Lots of people just move on to the next thing and never investigate why it didn’t work and so never learn any lessons.

    Thanks for sharing

  2. says

    I’m in the military, and that’s the question that leaders fear the most…if you ask me, there’s not enough why in the workplace…Why empowers people to act for a greater good.

  3. says

    The human assignment of causation is weak at best but as you point out a necessary step even when our view of caustion is wrong.

    Causation becomes blame if not monitored carefully.

    The greatest strength of the human intellect is the ability to ask why. The greatest weakness is the need to. (personal observation)

  4. Anthony says

    Good point. “Why” relates to strategy while “how” or “what” tend to focus on tactics. Too often we jump between objective and tactics without understanding why we will be successful (or weren’t.)

  5. says

    Thanks Ben, Nathan, Bob, Roberta and Anthony for your comments!

    Ben, I’m glad you mentioned the “fear factor” here- a lot of people are afraid to ask “why”. Once that fear is conquered, then real success can be obtained.

    Nathan, same point to you in mentioning fear – and I’m intrigued by your statement about how military leaders fear asking “why”. Are they afraid to hear the answer?

    Bob, great job of pointing out the fine line at work when it comes to the “why” question; thanks!

    Roberta, thanks for sharing your link! I guess great minds do think alike. 🙂 (I will RT it as well)

    Anthony, you are spot on – we are so “in a hurry” sometimes; we have to stop and learn from the answers from those “whys”!

    Thanks again to you all, and all the best!

  6. says

    Great point to highlight, Terry, thanks!
    The question of Why is a crucial one, and yet it disappointingly is missed in many businesses today.

    If you haven’t read it yet, Simon Sinek wrote a book on the subject. Simon’s book is brilliant, and definitely worth checking out. I wrote an article on the book here, should you be looking for a starting point:

  7. says

    Hmmm… why works in writing too. I always ask my ghostwriting clients why they want me to write their book and why they want a book written. Same thing is true for deadlines… why do you want it then?

    Along with other questions why is certainly a good one.

  8. says

    “Why” is precisely the question to ask past symptoms of an issue and get to the underlying causes of problems and issues. Remember we’re not looking for someone to blame, but rather to deal with the issues that are uncovered. “Why” is the best way to get started. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

  9. says

    As a product manager I have found probing for and answering the why questions created a much more positive team environment and in many cases led to completing things faster. When everyone has context for their piece in the solution, there is that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes with completing it – it’s about showing how the contribution provides value, because that is what we all really want. To know that we provide value.

    Great post! Very much enjoyed it.

  10. says

    I think you get right to the heart of the issue, which is purpose. Everyone who works for us in the organization wants and needs purpose for what they do. It’s human nature to look for significance. Answering “Why” for a work-project may not turn the team on fire, but at least it gives them the dignity deserved for the importance of the work that they are doing.

  11. Michael Zakem says

    I agree. “Why” is the is the objectives, goals, and perspective. This should be the start point for teams, and the basis for decisions throughout and after the project.

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